True crime is everyone’s favorite genre these days, and SundanceTV’s new series True Crime Story: Indefensible puts a fresh spin on the genre thanks to host Jena Friedman’s sharp interview skills and comedic sensibility. The series goes beyond the facts of the crimes it covers to call out a legal system that routinely fails the victims and lets criminals walk free.
Opening Shot: “Steven and Elana Steinberg seemed like the perfect couple… only, they weren’t,” host Jena Friedman narrates over photos of a couple on their wedding day. The narration sets up the story of a man who killed his wife and got away with it after the defense painted her as a sex-withholding nag who deserved it. Friedman’s tone is reminiscent of serious news magazine shows like Dateline or 20/20, until the moment the camera turns to her as she continues, saying “Steven was a compulsive gambler whose luck was spiraling out of control, and Elana had recently stopped letting him poke her.” The writing sets up the show’s tone right off the bat, not to mock or make fun of the crimes it’s covering, but because if we didn’t laugh about the absurdity of what’s to come, we’d cry because it’s about to become infuriating.
The Gist: Comedian and writer Friedman has spent much of her career satirizing society. She was a field producer on The Daily Show, she wrote on Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and she created and hosted the Adult Swim series Soft Focus with Jena Friedman. Indefensible combines her well-honed comedy skills with investigative reporting and the result is a true crime series where she exposes the flaws and crazy loopholes within the U.S. justice system.
In the first episode, Friedman covers the aforementioned Steinberg murder, which took place in 1991. Husband Steven stabbed his wife, Elana, 26 times with a knife from their kitchen, but was acquitted thanks to an “expert witness” who was a forensic psychiatrist who painted a picture of Elana as a woman who didn’t have sex with him often enough, who spent too much money, and who didn’t pay enough attention to her husband. In short, they claimed she slowly was provoking him over time and one day he just snapped. If the “she was asking for it” defense already sounds maddening, wait until Friedman interviews the forensic psychiatrist, Martin Blinder, responsible for the acquittal. Blinder goes so far as to refer to Steven as a victim of “battered man syndrome” — not battered physically, but psychically, the result of literally just dealing with a wife who shops and only gives him one blow job a week. At one points Blinder also admits that his testimony could have been clouded by his own biases.
Episode two investigates the so-called “rough sex” defense in a slew of women’s deaths. In particular, the show digs into the death of a Florida woman Francisca Marquinez, whose body was found in her apartment days after her death, despite the fact that her boyfriend Richard Patterson was also in the apartment that whole time. Patterson was recorded admitting that he choked Marquinez to death, but was also acquitted thanks to a defense that suggested she choked on his especially large penis during oral sex.
The fact that these expert witnesses and silly sounding defenses are used at all is brought into question and they’re meticulously picked apart by Friedman and her interview subjects, but what’s even more troubling is that juries buy into them and they work. As Friedman explains in the press release for the series, “I hope this show gives viewers insight into some of the ways in which the system is flawed, so at the very least, they’ll be a little more prepared in the event they ever end up on a jury.”
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Most of this show involves field interviews with witnesses, lawyers, or other people involved in notorious crimes, as well as providing background for why certain laws and legal defenses exist. This information is eye-opening and frustrating, and the way Indefensible handles this information, both in delivery and tone, compares to shows like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, The Daily Show, and even Nathan For You.
Our Take: Indefensible follows in the footsteps of satirical news shows like The Daily Show for sure, but it also has elements of podcasts like You’re Wrong About and NPR’s Throughline which cover events that seem straightforward at first, until you realize the gaps in reporting that were left out of the news cycle, or which were sensationalized in a way that we were only presented with some of the story. It’s informative yet funny, infuriating yet necessary.
Friedman is smart and brave in the way that you have to be when you interview the types of people she does; she doesn’t back down, she’s not intimidated by them, and she’s not worried about hurting feelings. Those are qualities every good field reporter, whether satirical or not, needs to have, but she also has empathy for many of her interviewees and for the victims of the crimes. There are moments, as in episode two when she’s speaking with the granddaughter of Francisca Marquinez, where she has no clever response when she learns that Marquinez’s entire murder trial only took three days, she is just stunned into angry silence.
Indefensible feels familiar because its format is not new, but it feels fresh thanks in part to the under-reported subject matter, and to Friedman’s ability to toggle between the serious and the absurd.
Sex and Skin: A lot of crimes covered on this series have to do with violence against women, so there’s talk of sex and rape. Episode two also features a lengthy discussion of killer Richard Patterson’s penis, which was technically considered the murder weapon during his trial.
Parting Shot: The first episode ends with Friedman cautioning viewers about that those expert witnesses you hear about in trials are actually often biased and the product of a testimony-for-pay system. Each episode wraps up these legal flaws in a tidy bow, but makes it clear that even by exposing these flaws, they’re not going away any time soon.
Sleeper Star: Friedman does it all on the show and she’s the only recurring “character,” if you will. In episode one, her interaction with Martin Blinder is scathing, and his appearance sets up her skills as a quick-witted interviewer, while also painting him as an unreliable expert.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Sometimes the criminal justice system isn’t all that just.”
Our Call: STREAM IT! Though it may seem like yet another entry in the true crime genre, True Crime Story: Indefensible is funny and cringe-y and, dare I say, even educational. Though each episode covers just one aspect of the legal system that needs to be reexamined, the series exposes patterns within these flaws that show just how easy it is to game the system (when you know the right people, that is).
Liz Kocan is a pop culture writer living in Massachusetts. Her biggest claim to fame is the time she won on the game show Chain Reaction.